IVF Embryo Mixup Leaves Two Couples Raising Each Other's Babies: 'It's Still a Daily Struggle'
The moment Alexander Cardinale laid eyes on his newborn daughter — seconds after his wife Daphna gave birth — he knew something was wrong.
"It was sort of a primal reaction," Alexander, 41, tells PEOPLE.
He recalls standing in their Los Angeles hospital room in September 2019, confused by how the infant looked nothing like him or his wife.
"It was a little jarring, but I shook it off and cut the umbilical cord," he says.
Three months later, the couple learned the shocking reason why: The fertility clinic where Alexander and Daphna had gone for in vitro fertilization (IVF) mistakenly implanted another couple's embryo into Daphna and transferred the Cardinales' embryo — made from Daphna's egg and Alexander's sperm — into the other woman, the Cardinales claim.
Both couples unwittingly raised the others' child for nearly three months before learning the disturbing truth about what happened, according to the Cardinales.
"This is something that's just changed who we are," says a still-shellshocked Daphna, 43, who literally swapped babies with the other couple in January 2020, nearly four months after both infants were born. "It's still a daily struggle and will continue to be."
Now Alexander and Daphna are suing the fertility clinic and its owner — the Los Angeles-based California Center for Reproductive Health and Dr. Eliran Mor — for medical malpractice, negligence and fraud, among other things. When contacted by PEOPLE, the office administrator at the California Center for Reproductive Health declined to comment.
"People make mistakes," says the couple's attorney, Adam Wolf, "and in most industries those mistakes are fairly harmless. They can be corrected. With fertility clinics, those mistakes can have lifelong consequences. This has fundamentally changed the lives of Daphna and Alexander, as well as their two children."
The couples' odyssey began shortly after Daphna gave birth. Alexander couldn't shake the feeling that they were not the little girl's real parents.
"If we hadn't done IVF, I would've just chalked [the lack of resemblance] up to genetics," he says. "She just looks how she looks. No big deal. But because we'd done IVF, my brain started going to the dark place."
But Daphna initially attempted to convince her husband that he was overreacting.
"She looked really different than us," says Daphne, who tried to persuade herself that their infant resembled her when she was a baby. "But she felt so familiar to me because I carried her and I birthed her."
Friends and family members noticed the same thing, increasingly commenting that "she looked like she could actually be a different ethnicity than us because she didn't really look like us," adds Daphna.
Despite their misgivings, the couple — and their then-5-year-old daughter Olivia — instantly fell in love with the dark-haired, little baby, whose race Alexander and Daphna decline to identify out of respect for the child's biological parents.
"It was this moment of sheer bliss when everybody is getting to know each other and falling in love with each other," says Daphna, a therapist. "She just really folded into our lives and into our hearts."
A month after the birth, an employee from the clinic that had performed their IVF treatment telephoned to ask if the couple would send them a photograph of their baby, the couple claims.
"It seemed odd," recalls Alexander, a musician. "I thought, 'Do they know something we don't know?' "
A week later, after growing frustrated with the comments from her husband and friends, Daphna brought home a DNA test kit, hoping to finally put an end to everyone's questions. In November 2019 — when their baby was nearly 2 months old — they finally learned the truth.
"We got an email that basically said that she was genetically related to neither of us," recalls Alexander. "That's when our world started falling apart."
The couple says they were terrified that they were going to lose the little girl whom they'd grown to love, and at the same time, they were equally afraid that they might have a biological child who was alive and needed to be found.
Days later, the attorney they hired after receiving the news was informed by clinic staff that the couple's embryos had gotten mixed up in the lab used by the fertility clinic, the couple says. Not long after that, they learned that the clinic had located their little girl's biological parents, who had also recently given birth to a baby girl, the Cardinales say.
In December 2019, the two couples and their babies underwent DNA testing, and on Christmas Eve, they received the news that the tests revealed that they had given birth to each other's children, the Cardinales tell PEOPLE. The next day, their attorney sent Alexander a text with a photograph of their blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter.
"I found out in that moment that she existed, what she looked like and what her name was," says Alexander, who learned the other couple had named their daughter Zoë, which the Cardinales decided to continue calling her. "It's weird learning the name of your child when you didn't name her."
The other couple — who are not interested in being identified or speaking publicly — were equally "blindsided and devastated," says Daphna. Their older daughter Olivia, who had become smitten with her little sister, was also crushed by the news and begged her parents not to switch babies.
But by mid-January 2020, after weeks of meeting up with the other couple nearly every day and exchanging the babies for brief visits, the four parents realized that the constant switching was too difficult for everyone and decided it was finally time for the children to live with their biological parents, the Cardinales say.
Nearly two years have passed since the two couples — who live 10 minutes from each other — got their children back. In that time, they've forged a strong bond with one another.
"There's no book for this," says Alexander. "There's no person to give you advice. So we ended up just sort of huddling together, the four of us, and it's a blessing that we all are on the same page. We've spent every holiday together since then. We've spent every birthday together since then — and we've just kind of blended the families."
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This story originally appeared on people.com